After devastation, the restorative forces of nature begin the process of healing.
On the 22nd December 2019, Australia’s biggest forest fire, which had already destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore, raced up the gully below Clarence St and burnt to within 10m of Eva and Bill Johnstone’s property, just above Pope’s Glen in Blackheath. It burnt all their bushland.
“There were times, once the fire got into the Grose Valley, that I wasn’t able to sleep, just waiting for it to come,” says Eva, on a sunny Autumn afternoon five months later.
“We had spent weeks preparing. Cleaning out gutters, buying protective gear, clearing around the house. We were mentally and physically prepared. We were going to meet it, we were going to fight it.”
“When it did arrive, my main emotion was defiance and anger at the fire. How dare you!”
Eva showing me a Trish Davies photograph of her and Bill in full protective gear amid the devastation on their property
“Afterwards, when I found a burnt possum, a burnt skink, a burnt microbat, I would totally break down and dissolve into tears because we, humanity, had let our wildlife down.”
“But since then I’ve felt heartened, because things are coming back quite quickly.”
Eva with their Biodiversity Conservation Trust sign, with Bill photo bombing in the background
She and Bill see themselves as custodians of the land with a responsibility to protect the adjacent National Park. Their property is now protected by a conservation agreement with the Biodiversity Conservation Trust.
You can view the last five months’ regeneration of their land after the fire and heavy rains here
It’s only three and a half years since Eva and Bill moved to Blackheath from Marrickville. Eva had always loved Blackheath, having come here almost every Christmas holiday since childhood, and, while here, having spent every sunny day at the pool. Eventually she scattered her mother’s ashes at the Soldiers Memorial Park and more recently she’s brought all her experience as a landscape architect, horticulturist, and urban designer and planner to fighting for the preservation of the Park.
She’s also sharing her expertise on five other local committees – BAG (Blackheath Highway Action Group), the Popes Glen Bushcare Group, the Streetscape Group, the Town Centre Masterplan Group and the Blue Mountains Rhododendron Society.
She’s sharing her love of growing food with Blackheath Community Farm, and this week donated excess veges she’d grown in her greenhouse to the Farm.
Eva in her greenhouse
Donating seedlings to Blackheath Community Farm
Gardening and cooking have always been Eva’s passions.
She began organic gardening when she became a mother in 1970, and her daughter still remembers being fed fresh strawberries and cherry tomatoes straight from the garden!
Way back in 1983, she and her late husband George started Eve’s Harvest Restaurant in Rozelle. Now renamed Harvest, it’s one of the longest running vegetarian restaurants in Sydney.
Here’s Eva when she was the chef at Eve’s Harvest around 1984
Eva and Bill’s verge garden in Marrickville
Described back then by the media as guerrilla gardeners, she and Bill started one of the country’s first verge food gardens outside their home in Marrickville in 2007 and were featured on the ABC, Gardening Australia, SMH, Better Homes and Gardens and even Darwin Radio.
Eva and Bill with Better Homes and Gardens host Johanna Griggs
Everything was grown on soil created by their kitchen scraps. The local council even brought three bus tours a year to the verge to educate the community about sustainable practices like their composting and worm farming.
One of the Council tours of their verge garden
Fast forward back to Blackheath in 2020 following a six-month period of emotional intensity with drought, fire, flood and now coronavirus. I ask Eva how she handles it all.
“As the reality of coronavirus hit I’d wake up in the same anxiety state as before the fires,” she said. “I’m actually still quite worried, but our lives haven’t changed much … we just go shopping less. What is different is that we’ve had two young people from the Netherlands who came through HelpX and they’ve now been here for almost two months because of coronavirus. They’re like family now.”
“But what works for me is yoga, pranayama (deep breathing) and meditation. It pushes everything else out.”
“I feel much stronger now, and much better able to cope. A lot of our time is spent working on the infrastructure to protect us and our neighbours for when the next fire comes.”